5 Common Mistakes New Screenwriters Make by CSUN Professor Eric Edson
Film Courage: What are the most common mistakes new screenwriters make?
Eric Edson: Okay, there’s a list. But the most common ones I see are 1) Not enough story. Again it’s that old thing, characters can be wonderful, dialogue can be sparkling or even funny as heck. But if the story lays there just flat as a pancake, that story is not going on anywhere. It’s a weak story. 2) Would be passive central character. That’s just killed more scripts that just about anything I’ve ever seen. And weak story and passive central character, they go together. The really go together, fit together, too. A passive central character is a hero or heroine, the lead down the middle who doesn’t really do anything in life and the story happens to them. They do not happen to anything or anyone.
And that is one way to put your audience to sleep very, very quickly.
Heroes have to be active. The hero is the audience. You build a story so that the hero is…with lots of flaws and everything…fine, yes. Make them human. But they have certain qualities of character and of circumstance. They have to be brave. That is absolutely essential. But you can put them in unfair injury. We care about people who are unjustly dealt with. They are in a situation of danger. They’re funny, they have a sense of humor, loved by other people (that always helps).
There is this kind of list of things you can do to keep characters interesting. That allows us to like them and once we start seeing the nature of the hero of heroine’s major problem and major, impossible task before them.
Hopefully on page 6 or 8, we the audience…the audience becomes one person (each of us) sitting alone. And we project ourselves, psychologically project ourselves into the hero and then we’re along for the ride. And if that hero doesn’t do anything, doesn’t want anything and other people do all the stuff. And all the people that come in, all the secondary characters are the witty, fun, urbane, loquacious, and joking and funny, but they’re all the funny characters while your central character is more or less wallpaper, it’s dead.
And that is related to something else which is the adversary. When that happens in a script, almost always the problem is there is no adversary or no powerful adversary. Adversary is so critical. People need to work on their adversary until it is…The adversary should be the strongest person in the story.
You know when I was coming up they were like “You know, they have to be equal in power to the hero.”
No! They have to be much more powerful than the hero. It has to look like…for most of the movie…it has to look like the hero has no bloody way of defeating the adversary or surmounting the problems being presented by this adversary, but they do it. They outthink them and they out try them and they can make it happen. And that’s a story with great conflict with a hero who is doing things who takes us along emotionally, that we can ride along happily for the journey. And that’s how the good ones work.
Where that’s probably more than two…I threw in probably three or four.
The next, the third I would say is getting it out there too soon. That’s what destroys most screenplays. It’s hard! You know, writing a screenplay, a feature length screenplay, that’s hard (really hard). And it’s not necessarily an all pleasant undertaking labor. It hurts, you tear your hair out, you pound your head against the wall, sometimes literally, but finally you’ve got a draft! Oh, Gosh I did it! Here it is…here it is. I’m going to get it out as quickly as I can and that’s the time of great danger. You just can’t send it out, it is not ready (guaranteed it is not ready).
Film Courage: Is there really this database of scripts? I mean really…it sounds like the medical record database. Is there really this database of coverage like “Ah, yes. Eric Edson. On this date he sent us this. No…no…the coverage was horrible.”
Eric Edson: Yes.
Film Courage: Really, this exists?
Eric Edson: Well…[exhales]…I have to confess now. It’s been some years now since I was in the thick of it, of this, but I don’t think a whole lot has changed. Except they’ve gotten a lot more technological. They’ve got better ways to keep track of stuff. And…yeah…back then, you had basically one shot because one…the person you are sending it to (if you finally get an agent to say “Okay. I’ll take a look and then leave me alone”). Or if it’s a producer or a friend of a friend or whatever. Most often, they are not going to read it, they are going to hand it to their reader. And I remember those early on when I was getting phone calls back producers and they were obviously reading from notes. They had obviously not read the script themselves, they were working from reader’s notes. Okay, but they’ve got their time issues, too. And they’ve got to use their time as best they can. But, yeah…if you get a bad report first time in, it is filed. Now it’s digitalized and you never know, ultimately what company becomes joined with what company and sometimes the people they just know each other even if they are at different companies. And “Did this pass through? Send me over the report.” And yes, those reports get disseminated.
Film Courage: What if you change the name of the script? Let’s suppose you started one called ANGEL’S FLIGHT and it got a pass and another pass. So you decided to change it to BIRDS OF A FEATHER (and I’m just totally making this stuff up). So BIRDS OF A FEATHER has been looked at and you’ve worked on it and you’ve had much more time but the story is very similar?
Eric Edson: I would say (my instinct would say) that you’ve probably done severe, probably irreparable damage to your career.
Film Courage: To resend something?
Eric Edson: Yes.
Film Courage: Okay.
Eric Edson: Under a different title because they have the plot. That’s one of the things a reader does, they outline the entire plot before they say “Ahh?” Whether good, bad or indifferent. No…don’t do it. Don’t just go around changing titles. Because they don’t like it, they don’t trust it.
Film Courage: They don’t trust you? Ahh, so that’s the bottom line.
Eric Edson: If you really worked on something, first of all, let time pass. You’re not going to be like “Ooooh! I’ve rewritten it and it’s really, really good!” It’s 5 months later and “No! Forget it.” Put it away. And then when the times comes and then what they are looking for on any given year, you know the wheel keeps turning, the nature of the material they are looking for. And then, do it honestly. Say “Look, I’ve tried this out on you two, three year’s ago. I still believe in the idea and I’ve been working on it and I think it’s a great deal better.” Or you go to somebody who hasn’t ready it before, because there is always someone who hasn’t read it and you say a friend of your’s (Nancy) she quite liked it or find a back door the the friend, maybe Nancy? But I wouldn’t change the title.
Film Courage: So be upfront, play by their rules.
Eric Edson: Be upfront.
Film Courage: Because it could hurt you.
Eric Edson: Yeah, you need to be upfront about it.
Film Courage: Why do you think people are scared to be upfront?
Eric Edson: Because sometimes liars get away with it. We have examples. We have examples.
Film Courage: We do. But we don’t have to go into them, but we have plenty.
Eric Edson: Sometimes liars get away with it but sometimes people in this business, I’m not saying they’re all greatly talented, but a lot of them are, a lot of them are enormously, they just have different talents and creativity and they mean well. They’re not inherently dishonest or scuzzy people or anything like that. But they make mistakes and you need to learn from their mistakes and also (amazingly) they have long memories, too.
Question for the Viewers: What ideas are you going to take away from this video?
BUY THE BOOK – THE STORY SOLUTION: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take
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About Professor Eric Edson:
Eric Edson has written seventeen feature screenplays on assignment. His produced script credits include PASSION’S WEB for Showtime, and he co-wrote and co-executive produced the NBC Movie of the Week LETHAL VOWS starring John Ritter and Marg Helgenberger. Other films include THE ROSE AND THE JACKAL starring Christopher Reeve, THE SOGGY BOTTOM GANG starring Don Johnson, and DIVING IN starring Kristy Swanson. Eric has also written for episodic television.
Professor Edson’s new book “THE STORY SOLUTION: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take,” published by Michael Wiese Productions, uncovers for the first time the 23 Hero Goal Sequences® used in every successful motion picture to create dynamic, three dimensional heroes and link together all plot development from first page to last (Read more here).
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